Scientists Propose Method to Turn Light Into Matter

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Everyone has dreamed of creating something from nothing.

From the idea of dollar bills magically manifesting themselves in our empty wallet, to a stick of gum springing into our open palm right before meeting an attractive movie star, the idea is daydream-worthy. A team of scientists in London have taken the first step in that direction: they have discovered how to turn light into matter.

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While it might not be the silver bullet for curing world hunger, or necessarily have any implications for our foul-breathed celebrity sightings, it does have incredible ramifications for understanding how the universe began, gamma ray bursts, and conceivably much more.

In 1927, Arthur Compton won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the Compton effect, which led to the adoption of the particle model for radiation. In short, he was the guy who proved that light was made up of tiny particles called photons. 

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While “photon” is fairly colloquial at this point, in 1934 the world was still reeling from the reality that light behaved like a wave and a stream of particles. In 1934, two visionary scientists, Breit and Wheeler, applied the Compton effect and published a paper in the American Physical Society. Their theory? “The production of positron electron pairs as a result of the collision of two light quanta.” In English, this means that by smacking two photons together, they thought a proton and electron would be created.

The highly advanced mathematics were sound, but up until now, no one has been able to prove it in a lab-setting. Astonishingly, this creation of matter from light can be done using existing technology.

Four scientists (Pike, Mackenroth, Hill, and Rose) proposed accelerating electrons to nearly the speed of light into gold, creating a stream of photons. By firing a laser at a gold canister, they would simulate a thermal radiation field, into which they would inject the photons. Protons and electrons will be created. This may not seem like much, but they are the building blocks of matter.

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The experiment hasn’t been executed yet, but this is the first time anyone has proposed a method for carrying out the vision of 1934. If successful, we will have taken a first step to understanding the universe in its first 100 seconds of existence. It’s tempting to picture the experiment featuring Scotty standing on the Enterprise transporter platform, beaming Kirk to a vaguely Earth-like planet, but in reality it will occur in a sanitized laboratory. But who knows, maybe it’s the first step to getting our Transporter. Next up: Dilithium Crystals!

Images: Pike et al, wikimedia commons, Paramount, ATLAS / LHC

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